It was a warm, dark, autumn night. It had been raining for four days. Having changed horses twice and galloped twenty miles in an hour and a half over a sticky, muddy road, Bolkhovitinov reached Litashevka after one o'clock at night. Dismounting at a cottage on whose wattle fence hung a signboard, GENERAL STAFF, and throwing down his reins, he entered a dark passage.
"The general on duty, quick! It's very important!" said he to someone who had risen and was sniffing in the dark passage.
"He has been very unwell since the evening and this is the third night he has not slept," said the orderly pleadingly in a whisper. "You should wake the captain first."
"But this is very important, from General Dokhturov," said Bolkhovitinov, entering the open door which he had found by feeling in the dark.
The orderly had gone in before him and began waking somebody.
"Your honor, your honor! A courier."
"What? What's that? From whom?" came a sleepy voice.
"From Dokhturov and from Alexey Petrovich. Napoleon is at Forminsk," said Bolkhovitinov, unable to see in the dark who was speaking but guessing by the voice that it was not Konovnitsyn.
The man who had wakened yawned and stretched himself.
"I don't like waking him," he said, fumbling for something. "He is very ill. Perhaps this is only a rumor."
"Here is the dispatch," said Bolkhovitinov. "My orders are to give it at once to the general on duty."
"Wait a moment, I'll light a candle. You damned rascal, where do you always hide it?" said the voice of the man who was stretching himself, to the orderly. (This was Shcherbinin, Konovnitsyn's adjutant.) "I've found it, I've found it!" he added.
The orderly was striking a light and Shcherbinin was fumbling for something on the candlestick.
"Oh, the nasty beasts!" said he with disgust.
By the light of the sparks Bolkhovitinov saw Shcherbinin's youthful face as he held the candle, and the face of another man who was still asleep. This was Konovnitsyn.
When the flame of the sulphur splinters kindled by the tinder burned up, first blue and then red, Shcherbinin lit the tallow candle, from the candlestick of which the cockroaches that had been gnawing it were running away, and looked at the messenger. Bolkhovitinov was bespattered all over with mud and had smeared his face by wiping it with his sleeve.
"Who gave the report?" inquired Shcherbinin, taking the envelope.
"The news is reliable," said Bolkhovitinov. "Prisoners, Cossacks, and the scouts all say the same thing."
"There's nothing to be done, we'll have to wake him," said Shcherbinin, rising and going up to the man in the nightcap who lay covered by a greatcoat. "Peter Petrovich!" said he. (Konovnitsyn did not stir.) "To the General Staff!" he said with a smile, knowing that those words would be sure to arouse him.
And in fact the head in the nightcap was lifted at once. On Konovnitsyn's handsome, resolute face with cheeks flushed by fever, there still remained for an instant a faraway dreamy expression remote from present affairs, but then he suddenly started and his face assumed its habitual calm and firm appearance.
"Well, what is it? From whom?" he asked immediately but without hurry, blinking at the light.
While listening to the officer's report Konovnitsyn broke the seal and read the dispatch. Hardly had he done so before he lowered his legs in their woolen stockings to the earthen floor and began putting on his boots. Then he took off his nightcap, combed his hair over his temples, and donned his cap.
"Did you get here quickly? Let us go to his Highness."
Konovnitsyn had understood at once that the news brought was of great importance and that no time must be lost. He did not consider or ask himself whether the news was good or bad. That did not interest him. He regarded the whole business of the war not with his intelligence or his reason but by something else. There was within him a deep unexpressed conviction that all would be well, but that one must not trust to this and still less speak about it, but must only attend to one's own work. And he did his work, giving his whole strength to the task.
Peter Petrovich Konovnitsyn, like Dokhturov, seems to have been included merely for propriety's sake in the list of the so-called heroes of 1812--the Barclays, Raevskis, Ermolovs, Platovs, and Miloradoviches. Like Dokhturov he had the reputation of being a man of very limited capacity and information, and like Dokhturov he never made plans of battle but was always found where the situation was most difficult. Since his appointment as general on duty he had always slept with his door open, giving orders that every messenger should be allowed to wake him up. In battle he was always under fire, so that Kutuzov reproved him for it and feared to send him to the front, and like Dokhturov he was one of those unnoticed cogwheels that, without clatter or noise, constitute the most essential part of the machine.
Coming out of the hut into the damp, dark night Konovnitsyn frowned- partly from an increased pain in his head and partly at the unpleasant thought that occurred to him, of how all that nest of influential men on the staff would be stirred up by this news, especially Bennigsen, who ever since Tarutino had been at daggers drawn with Kutuzov; and how they would make suggestions, quarrel, issue orders, and rescind them. And this premonition was disagreeable to him though he knew it could not be helped.
And in fact Toll, to whom he went to communicate the news, immediately began to expound his plans to a general sharing his quarters, until Konovnitsyn, who listened in weary silence, reminded him that they must go to see his Highness.
Kutuzov like all old people did not sleep much at night. He often fell asleep unexpectedly in the daytime, but at night, lying on his bed without undressing, he generally remained awake thinking.
So he lay now on his bed, supporting his large, heavy, scarred head on his plump hand, with his one eye open, meditating and peering into the darkness.
Since Bennigsen, who corresponded with the Emperor and had more influence than anyone else on the staff, had begun to avoid him, Kutuzov was more at ease as to the possibility of himself and his troops being obliged to take part in useless aggressive movements. The lesson of the Tarutino battle and of the day before it, which Kutuzov remembered with pain, must, he thought, have some effect on others too.
"They must understand that we can only lose by taking the offensive. Patience and time are my warriors, my champions," thought Kutuzov. He knew that an apple should not be plucked while it is green. It will fall of itself when ripe, but if picked unripe the apple is spoiled, the tree is harmed, and your teeth are set on edge. Like an experienced sportsman he knew that the beast was wounded, and wounded as only the whole strength of Russia could have wounded it, but whether it was mortally wounded or not was still an undecided question. Now by the fact of Lauriston and Barthelemi having been sent, and by the reports of the guerrillas, Kutuzov was almost sure that the wound was mortal. But he needed further proofs and it was necessary to wait.
"They want to run to see how they have wounded it. Wait and we shall see! Continual maneuvers, continual advances!" thought he. "What for? Only to distinguish themselves! As if fighting were fun. They are like children from whom one can't get any sensible account of what has happened because they all want to show how well they can fight. But that's not what is needed now.
"And what ingenious maneuvers they all propose to me! It seems to them that when they have thought of two or three contingencies" (he remembered the general plan sent him from Petersburg) "they have foreseen everything. But the contingencies are endless."
The undecided question as to whether the wound inflicted at Borodino was mortal or not had hung over Kutuzov's head for a whole month. On the one hand the French had occupied Moscow. On the other Kutuzov felt assured with all his being that the terrible blow into which he and all the Russians had put their whole strength must have been mortal. But in any case proofs were needed; he had waited a whole month for them and grew more impatient the longer he waited. Lying on his bed during those sleepless nights he did just what he reproached those younger generals for doing. He imagined all sorts of possible contingencies, just like the younger men, but with this difference, that he saw thousands of contingencies instead of two or three and based nothing on them. The longer he thought the more contingencies presented themselves. He imagined all sorts of movements of the Napoleonic army as a whole or in sections--against Petersburg, or against him, or to outflank him. He thought too of the possibility (which he feared most of all) that Napoleon might fight him with his own weapon and remain in Moscow awaiting him. Kutuzov even imagined that Napoleon's army might turn back through Medyn and Yukhnov, but the one thing he could not foresee was what happened--the insane, convulsive stampede of Napoleon's army during its first eleven days after leaving Moscow: a stampede which made possible what Kutuzov had not yet even dared to think of--the complete extermination of the French. Dorokhov's report about Broussier's division, the guerrillas' reports of distress in Napoleon's army, rumors of preparations for leaving Moscow, all confirmed the supposition that the French army was beaten and preparing for flight. But these were only suppositions, which seemed important to the younger men but not to Kutuzov. With his sixty years' experience he knew what value to attach to rumors, knew how apt people who desire anything are to group all news so that it appears to confirm what they desire, and he knew how readily in such cases they omit all that makes for the contrary. And the more he desired it the less he allowed himself to believe it. This question absorbed all his mental powers. All else was to him only life's customary routine. To such customary routine belonged his conversations with the staff, the letters he wrote from Tarutino to Madame de Stael, the reading of novels, the distribution of awards, his correspondence with Petersburg, and so on. But the destruction of the French, which he alone foresaw, was his heart's one desire.
On the night of the eleventh of October he lay leaning on his arm and thinking of that.
There was a stir in the next room and he heard the steps of Toll, Konovnitsyn, and Bolkhovitinov.
"Eh, who's there? Come in, come in! What news?" the field marshal called out to them.
While a footman was lighting a candle, Toll communicated the substance of the news.
"Who brought it?" asked Kutuzov with a look which, when the candle was lit, struck Toll by its cold severity.
"There can be no doubt about it, your Highness."
"Call him in, call him here."
Kutuzov sat up with one leg hanging down from the bed and his big paunch resting against the other which was doubled under him. He screwed up his seeing eye to scrutinize the messenger more carefully, as if wishing to read in his face what preoccupied his own mind.
"Tell me, tell me, friend," said he to Bolkhovitinov in his low, aged voice, as he pulled together the shirt which gaped open on his chest, "come nearer--nearer. What news have you brought me? Eh? That Napoleon has left Moscow? Are you sure? Eh?"
Bolkhovitinov gave a detailed account from the beginning of all he had been told to report.
"Speak quicker, quicker! Don't torture me!" Kutuzov interrupted him.
Bolkhovitinov told him everything and was then silent, awaiting instructions. Toll was beginning to say something but Kutuzov checked him. He tried to say something, but his face suddenly puckered and wrinkled; he waved his arm at Toll and turned to the opposite side of the room, to the corner darkened by the icons that hung there.
"O Lord, my Creator, Thou has heard our prayer..." said he in a tremulous voice with folded hands. "Russia is saved. I thank Thee, O Lord!" and he wept.
From the time he received this news to the end of the campaign all Kutuzov's activity was directed toward restraining his troops, by authority, by guile, and by entreaty, from useless attacks, maneuvers, or encounters with the perishing enemy. Dokhturov went to Malo-Yaroslavets, but Kutuzov lingered with the main army and gave orders for the evacuation of Kaluga--a retreat beyond which town seemed to him quite possible.
Everywhere Kutuzov retreated, but the enemy without waiting for his retreat fled in the opposite direction.
Napoleon's historians describe to us his skilled maneuvers at Tarutino and Malo-Yaroslavets, and make conjectures as to what would have happened had Napoleon been in time to penetrate into the rich southern provinces.
But not to speak of the fact that nothing prevented him from advancing into those southern provinces (for the Russian army did not bar his way), the historians forget that nothing could have saved his army, for then already it bore within itself the germs of inevitable ruin. How could that army--which had found abundant supplies in Moscow and had trampled them underfoot instead of keeping them, and on arriving at Smolensk had looted provisions instead of storing them--how could that army recuperate in Kaluga province, which was inhabited by Russians such as those who lived in Moscow, and where fire had the same property of consuming what was set ablaze?
That army could not recover anywhere. Since the battle of Borodino and the pillage of Moscow it had borne within itself, as it were, the chemical elements of dissolution.
The members of what had once been an army--Napoleon himself and all his soldiers fled--without knowing whither, each concerned only to make his escape as quickly as possible from this position, of the hopelessness of which they were all more or less vaguely conscious.
So it came about that at the council at Malo-Yaroslavets, when the generals pretending to confer together expressed various opinions, all mouths were closed by the opinion uttered by the simple-minded soldier Mouton who, speaking last, said what they all felt: that the one thing needful was to get away as quickly as possible; and no one, not even Napoleon, could say anything against that truth which they all recognized.
But though they all realized that it was necessary to get away, there still remained a feeling of shame at admitting that they must flee. An external shock was needed to overcome that shame, and this shock came in due time. It was what the French called "le hourra de l'Empereur."
The day after the council at Malo-Yaroslavets Napoleon rode out early in the morning amid the lines of his army with his suite of marshals and an escort, on the pretext of inspecting the army and the scene of the previous and of the impending battle. Some Cossacks on the prowl for booty fell in with the Emperor and very nearly captured him. If the Cossacks did not capture Napoleon then, what saved him was the very thing that was destroying the French army, the booty on which the Cossacks fell. Here as at Tarutino they went after plunder, leaving the men. Disregarding Napoleon they rushed after the plunder and Napoleon managed to escape.
When les enfants du Don might so easily have taken the Emperor himself in the midst of his army, it was clear that there was nothing for it but to fly as fast as possible along the nearest, familiar road. Napoleon with his forty-year-old stomach understood that hint, not feeling his former agility and boldness, and under the influence of the fright the Cossacks had given him he at once agreed with Mouton and issued orders--as the historians tell us--to retreat by the Smolensk road.
That Napoleon agreed with Mouton, and that the army retreated, does not prove that Napoleon caused it to retreat, but that the forces which influenced the whole army and directed it along the Mozhaysk (that is, the Smolensk) road acted simultaneously on him also.
A man in motion always devises an aim for that motion. To be able to go a thousand miles he must imagine that something good awaits him at the end of those thousand miles. One must have the prospect of a promised land to have the strength to move.
The promised land for the French during their advance had been Moscow, during their retreat it was their native land. But that native land was too far off, and for a man going a thousand miles it is absolutely necessary to set aside his final goal and to say to himself: "Today I shall get to a place twenty-five miles off where I shall rest and spend the night," and during the first day's journey that resting place eclipses his ultimate goal and attracts all his hopes and desires. And the impulses felt by a single person are always magnified in a crowd.
For the French retreating along the old Smolensk road, the final goal--their native land--was too remote, and their immediate goal was Smolensk, toward which all their desires and hopes, enormously intensified in the mass, urged them on. It was not that they knew that much food and fresh troops awaited them in Smolensk, nor that they were told so (on the contrary their superior officers, and Napoleon himself, knew that provisions were scarce there), but because this alone could give them strength to move on and endure their present privations. So both those who knew and those who did not know deceived themselves, and pushed on to Smolensk as to a promised land.
Coming out onto the highroad the French fled with surprising energy and unheard-of rapidity toward the goal they had fixed on. Besides the common impulse which bound the whole crowd of French into one mass and supplied them with a certain energy, there was another cause binding them together--their great numbers. As with the physical law of gravity, their enormous mass drew the individual human atoms to itself. In their hundreds of thousands they moved like a whole nation.
Each of them desired nothing more than to give himself up as a prisoner to escape from all this horror and misery; but on the one hand the force of this common attraction to Smolensk, their goal, drew each of them in the same direction; on the other hand an army corps could not surrender to a company, and though the French availed themselves of every convenient opportunity to detach themselves and to surrender on the slightest decent pretext, such pretexts did not always occur. Their very numbers and their crowded and swift movement deprived them of that possibility and rendered it not only difficult but impossible for the Russians to stop this movement, to which the French were directing all their energies. Beyond a certain limit no mechanical disruption of the body could hasten the process of decomposition.
A lump of snow cannot be melted instantaneously. There is a certain limit of time in less than which no amount of heat can melt the snow. On the contrary the greater the heat the more solidified the remaining snow becomes.
Of the Russian commanders Kutuzov alone understood this. When the flight of the French army along the Smolensk road became well defined, what Konovnitsyn had foreseen on the night of the eleventh of October began to occur. The superior officers all wanted to distinguish themselves, to cut off, to seize, to capture, and to overthrow the French, and all clamored for action.
Kutuzov alone used all his power (and such power is very limited in the case of any commander in chief) to prevent an attack.
He could not tell them what we say now: "Why fight, why block the road, losing our own men and inhumanly slaughtering unfortunate wretches? What is the use of that, when a third of their army has melted away on the road from Moscow to Vyazma without any battle?" But drawing from his aged wisdom what they could understand, he told them of the golden bridge, and they laughed at and slandered him, flinging themselves on, rending and exulting over the dying beast.
Ermolov, Miloradovich, Platov, and others in proximity to the French near Vyazma could not resist their desire to cut off and break up two French corps, and by way of reporting their intention to Kutuzov they sent him a blank sheet of paper in an envelope.
And try as Kutuzov might to restrain the troops, our men attacked, trying to bar the road. Infantry regiments, we are told, advanced to the attack with music and with drums beating, and killed and lost thousands of men.
But they did not cut off or overthrow anybody and the French army, closing up more firmly at the danger, continued, while steadily melting away, to pursue its fatal path to Smolensk.